The at times scorching, at times freezing, frequently wet and always heavy surface of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is enough to be engaging: a hapless, amateur hiker taking on one of America’s most scenic and formidable hikes, the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT, in hiker vernacular). As she relates the story of her physical journey across and 1,100 mile stretch through California and Oregon, she interjects the events of her life that had shattered and dumped her at the start of her hike: the death of her beloved mother, the end of her marriage, struggles with addiction–a jagged, zig-zagging, criss-cross of trails that stand in stark contrast to the single, straight line of the PCT.
Strayed relates that though she had, before the hike, imagined herself reflecting and meditating on these struggles, she instead finds nearly all of her time consumed by the physical difficulty of hiking the PCT. Somehow indicative of this is the fact that the landscapes she crosses (which we know are breathtaking) are often an afterthought–she writes quickly, almost dismissively, of the jagged mountains and sweeping panoramas; more words are spent on her physical struggle–the battle to keep her toenails, the weight of her pack, Monster, the monotony of hiking:
Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched.
Despite the clear agony of the hike and her emotional journey in telling it, the stories of Strayed’s trip–instant camaraderie with fellow PCT hikers, encounters with eccentric outsiders, even a sexy overnight with a “hot, sweet, self-absorbed” bouncer she meets at one of her off-trail stops–keep Wild fun enough to be a “beach read.” As a generational in-betweener, not quite a Gen Xer, not quite a Millenial–I loved the 90’s touchstones throughout–Nag Champa incense, Nirvana lyrics, Snapple. Strayed easily pulls the reader into the simple joys and excitement of her journey so that the monotony she references never becomes too tedious for the reader to endure.
And yet Wild is ultimately a serious undertaking, masterfully executed. Strayed manages to stitch together the experiences of her physical journey and those of the life that preceded in such a way that the story is a seamless blend of narrative and reflection. These reflections are of course the real meat of the memoir, but the exercise was clearly one that took place after the hike. One gets the feeling that perhaps writing this book, and finishing after many years, was as much a journey emotionally and mentally as the hike itself. The result is exceptionally tidy. Strayed holds the threads of her narrative so tightly, after initially casting them so wide–symbols and bits are dropped like breadcrumbs, but all gathered and pieced together in the end.
And those reflections and realizations hit pointedly, with intent and clarity, and a repetition that rises up like the mountains she traverses with the thrum thrum thrum of her steps. It could almost be too much, the multiple, heavy “ah-ha” moments and heartbreaking memories. Yet it’s not over-written, and even in that repetition there’s meaning, I think. The process of living is often one of continued review and remembering and realizing. We don’t learn a lesson and blaze on blissfully, feeling somehow perfected. Rather, we frequently return to moments of lowness, only to have to pull ourselves up, yet again.
Whether you’ve suffered the loss of a close loved one, battled addiction, ended a serious relationship, or struggled under some other hardship that isn’t encountered in Wild, what we can all relate to is the fact that living with these burdens often feels like teetering on a mountain-range of emotional cliffsides. “Insurmountable” is the word we might run up against, and “quit, quit, quit” the mantra we might accost our resolve with; but in the end, somehow we keep moving forward. It’s this simple acceptance of her lot, her life, “like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred” that ultimately seems to be Strayed’s most penetrating realization in Wild.
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple, was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial… I considered my options. There were essentially only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
It’s this need to continuously return to what’s true that will have me reading Wild again.
[And I look forward to its adaptation to the big screen, on December 5th, 2014, which is why I’ve chosen to write a review over 2 years after the book came out!]